Monday, January 11, 2010

Mark 1:6-8

Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.

And he preached, saying, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
(Mark 1:6-8)

kai; h\n oJ #Iwavnnh? ejndedumevno? trivca? kamhvlou kai; zwvnhn dermativnhn peri; th;n ojsfu;n aujtou', kai; ejsqivwn ajkrivda? kai; mevli a~grion.

kai; ejkhvrussen levgwn, ~ercetai oJ ijscurovterov? mou ojpivsw mou, ouJ' oujk eijmi; iJkano;? kuvya? lu'sai to;n iJmavnta tw'n uJpodhmavtwn aujtou':

ejgw; ejbavptisa uJma'? u&dati, aujto;? de; baptivsei uJma'? ejn pneuvmati aJgivw/.

(Mark 1:6-8)

(Can't see the Greek font? Get it here.)

Just for fun, here is an excerpt from the New Testament as translated by William Tynsdale in 1526:

[Source: The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, By William Tyndale (1526), Published by Gould & Newman, from the London edition of Bagster, 1837]

Two things strike my interest in these three verses: (1) the manner of living by John the Baptist, and (2) his message.
I must be honest here, I've always been intrigued by the mention of John's clothes and food. Why is the reader told these things? What is the author trying to tell us? Obviously, the author thought it was necessary, but for what reason? What would these descriptors have communicated to his audience, and/or those readers during the first and second centuries?

John, the man

In Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28, Jesus tells us that "among those born of women none is greater than John". Up until that time, of all of the people that came before - kings, prophets, military heroes, anyone - none was greater than John the Baptist. Yet, aside from excerpts of his message and mention of his death in Scripture, all we are told about this man's everyday life is that he lived in the wilderness, he wore clothes made from camels hair (and a leather belt), and he ate locusts and honey. What are we to take away from this?

Rest assured, we are not the first to ask these questions. While studying this passage, I ran across a book by
James A. Kelhoffer titled, "The diet of John the Baptist: "Locusts and wild honey" in synoptic and patristic interpretation", published by Mohr Siebeck in 2005 (see a preview @ Google Books). [I did find an article that wraps up the book in pretty short order, so you can get the gist here.]

Here's what I can gather: no one can be absolutely sure why Mark thought it relevant to include what John wore and what he ate. That doesn't stop as many theories being postulated as there are theologians, however. A few theories:
  1. the author is simply offering up some detail in order to elaborate on what living in the wilderness would have entailed,
  2. John was going for that Elijah-look and wanted his fellow Jews to pick up on the "hint", or
  3. his restricted diet and choice of less-than-comfortable clothing was in line with his Nazirite status.
Add to these theories the generally accepted understanding that Mark's audience was most likely intended to be Gentile, and it starts people trying to determine how and if non-Jewish readers would have placed any significance on this information. However, since the gospel of Matthew includes the same information in Matthew 3:4, that could lead one to conclude that the information was germane to John himself, and not some kind of help to explain a Hebrew custom to an unfamiliar audience.

Now would be a good time to bring up the debate between modern scholars and church historians about the order in which the gospels were written. The early church saw no issue here, it was commonly understood that Matthew wrote first.

[Source: A Harmony of the Gospels (New American Standard Bible) by Robert L. Thomas, Stanley N. Gundry, published by HarperCollins, 1986]

Here's that excerpt from "The ecclesiastical history of Eusebius Pamphilus..." by Eusebius (of Caesarea, Bishop of Caesarea), translated by Christian Frederic Crusé, and published by R. Davis, 1840:

Liberal scholarship rejects any notion of Holy Spirit inspiration in the writing of scripture, so once they remove that, they're at liberty to throw out every accepted tenant of church history and offer up all new suggestions. Boiled down, the majority subscribe to the theory that the authors of Matthew and Luke simply used the gospel of Mark, expanding on it where ever they wanted. There is no evidence for this, however, only craftily worded arguments built on "literary forensics" and speculation. Without divinely guarded discernment and a solid footing on the sovereignty of God, one is apt to come away from such a study with a severely shaken confidence in the reliability and inspiration of the Holy Scripture.

All of that to say this: Matthew does not include this same description of John the Baptist because he copied Mark. Remaining in our solid grasp of the sufficiency of scripture, and our scholarly pillar of interpreting scripture by scripture, we understand that Jesus foretold to his disciples that He would send a Helper:
"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." (John 14:26)
The authors of the gospels were not just four men writing down the gospel of Jesus as they thought of it, but instead were guided and taught by the Holy Spirit, recording many of the same things because the real Author of Scripture is One, and the recollection is of the same series of events. As John MacArthur comments,
"For example, the fact that three books on American history all had the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War in the same chronological order would not prove that the authors had read each others' books. General agreement in content does not prove literary dependency."
So, it seems that these details about John are important in describing the man. Most would agree that by today's standards, it seems rather unimaginable to wear camel hair garments and eat locusts. The thing is, it was considered somewhat extreme even then, in the early first century. Then why did he lead such a life?

I'm staking my flag on a conglomeration of the following two points:
  1. He was of the Nazirite order
  2. He was "in the spirit and power of Elijah"
The supporting scripture (emphasis mine):
But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.

And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared."
(Luke 1:13-17)

he must not drink wine or strong drink"

For the Nazirite Vow, see Numbers 6:1-21. Matthew Henry comments on the Nazirite Vow:
"It is spoken of as a great instance of God's favour to his people that he raised up of their sons for prophets, and their young men for Nazarites, as if those that were designed for prophets were trained up under the discipline of the Nazarites; Samuel and John Baptist were; which intimates that those that would be eminent servants of God, and employed in eminent services, must learn to live a life of self-denial and mortification, must be dead to the pleasures of sense, and keep their minds from every thing that is darkening and disturbing to them."
[Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew Henry (1662 - 1714)]

in the spirit and power of Elijah"
They answered him, "He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist." And he said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite." (2 Kings 1:8)

Not only did John dress like Elijah, but in his ministry he too was a prophet calling Israel back to God, calling them to repentance. Maybe even more apparently, his ministry fulfilled the prophecy from Malachi,
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes." (Malachi 4:5)
In appearance and behavior, John the Baptist should have reminded the Jews of what they already knew about Elijah, having expected Elijah to come before the Messiah. This in addition to the fact that God made known no prophet since Malachi, a time period of about 400 years up to that point. Therefore, to have one appear on the scene now should have sent up a flag.
Side note (no deep thoughts here): I've noticed that God seems to like "dramatic pauses". He put in this pause in His prophetic word, reminding me somewhat of the pause between the 6th and 7th seals in Revelation 6-8. Not to mention the 400 years that the Israelites spent in Egypt before He handed down the Law... these pauses seem placed to get the people ready, waiting, thirsty, anticipating. Just a thought. There's nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9), so I'm not the first to mention this, I know.

The message

All of this is merely introduction to the "main thing": the preaching of the gospel. And that is to what John is pointing, is it not?
And he preached, saying, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:7-8)
Compare with Matthew's parallel passage here,
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea,
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 3:1-2)

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Matthew 3:11)
John preached a "baptism of repentance". His purpose and message was to herald the coming of the Messiah, preparing the hearts of the people in order that they would be ready to receive Him.

What did Jesus preach?
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 4:17)

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)
We see in this comparison that John was fulfilling his place as the forerunner of the Messiah. His baptism, though with water, was a symbol of what was to come, and it was an outward sign, in that the participant was showing a heart-action of repentance.

It is important to understand what John's baptism was (and what it wasn't):

What it wasn't:
It was not a new thing that John just made up one day in the wilderness.
It was not what would become known as Christian baptism.
What it was:
John's "baptism of repentance" was the pledge his followers took of their determination to separate themselves from the prevalent pollutions, as the needful preparation for receiving the coming Messiah, who remits the sins of His believing people. The "remission" was not present but prospective, looked for through Messiah, not through John (Acts 10:43). John's baptism was accompanied with confession (Matt 3:6), and was an act of obedience to the call to renounce all sin and believe in the coming Redeemer from sin. [Source: Fausset's Bible Dictionary]

"Baptismal purifications"

Many times in the Old Testament we read of requisite washing before a sacrifice, even as part of the ceremony. The idea of a purifying washing in water carried into the ceremonial washings during proselyte inductions into Judaism. These washings are all signifying a cleansing of the unholy in order to be of service to the Holy One.

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
And washed my hands in innocence (Psalm 73:13)

"Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;

Remove the evil of your deeds from My sight
Cease to do evil," (Isaiah 1:16)

When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning (Isaiah 4:4)

Wash your heart from evil, O Jerusalem,
That you may be saved.
How long will your wicked thoughts
Lodge within you? (Jeremiah 4:14)

"In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity. (Zechariah 13:1)

So, the point at which many of the Jewish leaders found offense in what John was requiring of them can be traced to their distorted view of themselves. Believing in themselves that they were already "pure", they would see submitting to a purification ritual such as this as suggesting that they had something that needed to be purified, something for which to be repentant.
*** This same "blindness" is prevalent today, in the sense that many cannot see (through their many religious acts, their having been "doing church" for years, or just a blatant disregard for the truth) a need for a change, for a Savior, for repentance. It is only reasonable that one must first recognize the need for these things before seeking the cure. ***
Here we've examined a distilled version of John's life and message. John fulfilled Old Testament prophecy by coming onto the scene in the spirit of Elijah, calling the people of Israel to make way for the coming Messiah, calling them to repent and ready themselves to receive the Christ. His was to point to the coming Messiah, and to prepare the hearts and minds of his fellowmen.

In our next study, we'll look at Mark 1:9-11 - Jesus' baptism.